Chapter 14: Raining Sakura

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I exist in a place you have forgotten. As you return to the world you knew, take care of the secrets that rest somewhere within you…the sweet remembrances of all that passed between us. I know you don't remember, but the secrets lie within you, just the same. Keep them safe. And someday when our paths cross again, I hope to see you strong again…flowing with the power of a rising sun and surrounded in light.

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Kuchiki Byakuya woke to an odd feeling of disorientation. He had no idea why the concept of waking in his own room would be a foreign one…but it felt somehow strange. He sat up slowly, taking in his surroundings and realized suddenly that he wasn't alone. Rukia sat in a chair beside his bed, half toppled over and sleeping leaned up against his fukutaichou. Renji's eyes caught his and the redhead nudged Rukia to wake her. They stared silently at him and Byakuya tried unsuccessfully to think of something to say.

"Nii-sama?" Rukia managed finally, "How are you feeling?"

Byakuya blinked in confusion. She was acting like there was something dreadfully wrong with him, but a quick once over assured him that physically, he was fine.

"Was I ill?" he asked quietly, "I feel like I've been asleep for a long while."

"You've been asleep for three days, Taichou," Renji answered, "We were beginning to wonder if you would ever wake up. Everyone has been wondering…How did you escape? How did you get away?"

Byakuya stared at him uncomprehendingly.

"Abarai, what in kami's name are you talking about? How did I escape from where?" he asked.

"Nii-sama," Rukia said, wide-eyed, "You were missing for over two months! You were hurt in a battle in Hueco Mundo and everyone here except Renji and me thought you were dead! But we found traces of your reiatsu that led us to Las Noches. We were captured and we saw you with Aizen Sousuke. Nii-sama, you helped us to escape, but you were recaptured! But then, a few days ago, you were found unconscious near the shinigami outpost in Hueco Mundo. Unohana Taichou said that there were signs of healed injuries…but that you were okay and I told her that you would probably rather wake up here than in the healing center."

"You saw me with Aizen Sousuke?" Byakuya asked slowly.

"Hai, Nii-sama. You were dressed in an Arrancar uniform and standing next to him. When you recognized us and tried to come to us, he reminded you that you were a prisoner of war and had you taken away. But you came to the prisons and freed us."

Byakuya shook his head in confusion.

"I remember nothing of this."

"That's okay, Taichou," Renji said, smiling supportively, "The important thing is that you are back home now…and you are safe."

"I am more concerned about you two," he said sternly, "What were you about, returning to Hueco Mundo after I ordered you to leave!"

He glared at Renji.

"You were supposed to watch out for her! And instead you let her wander into Las Noches and you both were captured!"

Renji's eyes widened.

"Hey! I didn't…Taichou, she wouldn't listen to me! And how would you expect me to keep Rukia from coming after you? You knew she would…and no one was going to stop her! A freight train couldn't stop her!"

"All right, fukutaichou," Byakuya said rubbing his forehead, "I concede that she is stubborn…but…I have an awful headache. We should debrief later."

"Oh, a freight train wouldn't stop me?" Rukia objected, ignoring Byakuya, "That's fine, coming from an idiot like you!"

"Oh, I'm an idiot?" Renji snapped, "So what do you call stumbling blindly back into Hueco Mundo without even preparing properly and getting us both caught! WHAT IS THAT?"

"Shut up!" Rukia fired back, "I'm not the one who can't fire a 'shakkahou' kido without it blowing up in my face!"

"That's not why we got caught!" Renji yelled.

The two barely noticed when Byakuya slipped out of bed and left the room to walk out into the much more peaceful environs of the garden. He walked slowly down the garden path, heedless of the fact he was barefoot and still dressed in his nightclothes, breathing in the sweet, familiar smells and wondering why it felt like he hadn't been there in ages. The gardener smiled and bowed as he passed. Byakuya greeted him quietly. He sensed Rukia's flash step and turned his head to look down at her as they walked the trail together. The scent of food rose up as they came to the end of the trail and reached the garden patio. They sat down together and waited as their breakfast was served.

"Renji couldn't stay for breakfast?" he asked softly.

"He thought that we should have some time to ourselves…but he was very worried for you, Nii-sama. At first…when everyone thought you were dead, he couldn't stop crying. He blamed himself for leaving you, even though you ordered him to go."

"Renji is a very dedicated fukutaichou," Byakuya said quietly.

Rukia looked into his eyes.

"He is also a very good friend, Nii-sama."

"Yes," Byakuya agreed, "Renji is a good friend. He took care of you, just as I asked him to."

"And he didn't give up, even though everyone tried to tell him you were gone. He was the only one who would believe me. And Nii-sama, it really wasn't his fault we were captured. Renji came after me when I tried to go to Hueco Mundo alone."

"You…what?" Byakuya said, his eyes widening, "Rukia! That was very reckless…"

"I know," she said, bowing her head, "but you were in my dreams and you said you were hurt. I had to go and look for you. Renji found out I was gone and came after me. It was then that we were caught. Like I said, it was my fault, not his. Renji would never have run unprepared into Hueco Mundo. In fact, he was trying to prepare a rescue group when I disappeared and he had to come after me. But even after you freed us, the secret mobile corps said that they were unable to reach you. I was so worried about you, Nii-sama. I hated thinking of you being hurt and alone with the hollows and those awful men!"

Byakuya sighed.

"Well, all of that is over now. And I want your word that you will never do something reckless like that again! I didn't adopt you into the family so that you could recklessly throw your life away."

Rukia shook her head solemnly.

"I'm sorry, Nii-sama," she said softly, "I don't think I can make that promise. I think I've become a little too influenced by you."

Byakuya regarded her with stern, but warm eyes.

"Well then, if you are going to be reckless, we'll need to see that you become strong enough to defeat anything that crosses you. Rukia…after we are finished eating, I would like it if you accompanied me to the Squad Six training grounds…and bring your zanpakutou."

"Nii-sama…why?"

"Well," he said quietly, "if you insist on being reckless, then it is my duty to protect you from yourself by making you stronger."

"You will spar…with me?"

His eyes rose to meet hers.

"Yes."

"But Nii-sama, you have only just returned…and you slept for three days…and…"

"Kuchiki Rukia," he said, hiding a smile, "Just who do you think you are talking to?"

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Aizen Sousuke stood waiting quietly as Gin was led into the small room and brought to his knees. A kido field rose around him, holding him in place. He looked down at his blindfolded associate and drew his zanpakutou. When all was prepared, he approached Gin and rested a hand on his shoulder.

"Are you prepared to accept your punishment…Gin?" he asked softly.

Gin remained silent and still.

"You and I both know that, not only did you send the Arrancar to rape and kill my lover, you tormented him beyond reasonable punishment and at every turn, you tried to shake his confidence in me."

"Well, what would you have me do, Sousuke? You were mooning about like an affectionate puppy, not at all fitting for the leader of creatures like these. I was doing you a favor."

"You consider having Byakuya raped and killed a favor?" he asked coldly.

"Well…I admit that was partly just some payback for him getting in the way when I tried to kill his sister. He has a habit of being in the way. I sought to cure him of it."

"I think there was more to it than that," Aizen whispered in his ear.

"Really?" queried Gin.

"Yes…really."

He knelt in front of the kneeling prisoner and brought their faces close together. Then he closed the distance and let his lips brush very lightly against Gin's. Gin's moved immediately in response and Aizen pulled away.

"There, you see, Gin, I knew that there was more to your behavior than concern for me or hatred for him. You did what you did to try to make him leave…then to try to kill him. You did this because you saw that he had found a way to reach a place you never have and never will. I told you, Gin. You are valuable to me…and your assistance in my rise to power is both needed and deeply appreciated. But I cannot return your affection. And I cannot allow you to damage or take away what is mine."

He stood and returned his hand to Gin's shoulder.

"Don't worry, I will not let them kill you. However, you will endure every ounce of pain and fear you made him suffer."

He stepped away.

"Would you like to see the face of the first of the tormentors I've chosen for you?" he asked calmly.

He didn't wait for an answer, but merely reached down and pulled away the blindfold. Gin looked up and found himself staring up into the cold, deadly eyes of Kuchiki Byakuya. Aizen smiled and started out the door.

"Remember," he told the illusion of Byakuya, "return every ounce of pain he gave you."

"Hai, Sousuke," the illusion said softly.

"The Arrancars will be waiting when you are finished."

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"What's the matter, Renji?" Byakuya asked, looking up from the report he was finishing, "Are you still sore from the sparring?"

"Are you kidding? No way!" he exclaimed, "I just…I'm hungry is all…"

The calm, dark eyes regarded him with more warmth than usual.

"Then go to lunch, Abarai fukutaichou," he said, suppressing a smile, "Perhaps when Rukia finishes showering, she will go with you."

"Yeah…right, sure, Taichou."

Byakuya raised an eyebrow.

"You don't wish to have lunch with her? Renji, you're not holding a grudge, are you? It's not as though she actually defeated you."

The unspoken jab being, I stopped it before it came to that!

"She fought well…against you and me. She has improved quite a lot."

"I'll say!" Renji said, rubbing the back of his neck.

They were quiet for a moment.

"It was the kido combination," Byakuya said quietly.

"Yeah," Renji said, somewhat sarcastically, "The one she learned from you! Thanks, Taichou!"

"Thanks for what?" Byakuya asked blithely, "I've shown you that combination plenty of times. It isn't my fault or hers if you don't pay attention."

"I pay attention," Renji said, beginning to look a little hurt, "I just stink at kido, that's all."

Byakuya sighed.

"I wouldn't worry," Byakuya commented, looking up at him, "you have many other unique abilities…and Renji…"

His fukutaichou met his eyes questioningly.

"I have every confidence that when you spar with her again, you will stop that combination move. And the next time you spar with me, I will not be able to use it to undo you."

"Yeah, well you 'undo' me with that same damned combination every time, Taichou."

Because I know you can defeat it.

"Yes…that does appear to be the pattern."

Things are only going to grow more dangerous. The two of you need to be much stronger.

"So…Abarai fukutaichou, will you be leaving to have lunch?"

"Hai, as soon as Rukia gets out here."

"Very well, don't be late returning."

Renji gazed at Byakuya as he returned to his work.

"Taichou?"

"Hmm?" Byakuya said without looking up.

"Taichou…would you…like to come with us?"

Now the curious, dark gray eyes rose to meet his.

I was hoping you would ask.

"There is still much to catch up on. I was gone for a long time," he said softly.

"I know," Renji said, crossing the room and sitting down next to him, "but you should take better care of yourself. It's not good to skip meals. It won't take long. Will you come with us?"

Byakuya's eyes rose to meet his.

Before he could answer, a hell butterfly floated into the room and spouted its urgent message.

Kuchiki Taichou, the shinigami base in Hueco Mundo is in need of support. Please take a relief team and some healers as soon as possible.

"Like you haven't spent enough time there!" Renji complained, "Damn!"

He grabbed his zanpakutou.

"Where are you going, Abarai?" asked Byakuya.

"Where do you think?" Renji asked, "I'm going with you!"

"What about lunch?"

"Forget it…come on!"

Byakuya smiled to himself, picked up Senbonzakura and followed Renji out the door.

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Aizen Sousuke stood behind the battle lines, watching the hollows engage the fighters from the shinigami base. It was annoying that he couldn't seem to convince Soutaichou that this little outpost should be abandoned. It was far too close to Las Noches for his comfort. Still, every time he knocked the base down, it seemed to spring back up again. He looked on, sighing softly. There was no need to get involved. He didn't feel like expending the energy. The hollows were strong enough to knock down the base again without his interference.

Suddenly, he spotted a pink glow on the horizon. In the distance, he saw two rows of rising swords and the wielder's words floated softly out towards him.

"Ban kai, Senbonzakura Kageyoshi."

He hardly noticed the hollows being engulfed and thrown down on the battlefield beneath them. All he could focus on was the slender, beautiful form that stood between the rows of swords as they dissolved, then followed the petal blades down, slashing furiously at the hollows. He followed the taichou's movements as he turned and flash stepped, his weapon a blur that destroyed hollows in droves until they had to turn in retreat. Even as they ran, the petal blades rose up over them, sweeping in a beautiful, deadly pink wave across the battlefield. He watched as it swallowed the hollows, then as it closed on him. His spirit energy destroyed most of the petal blades, but a few left their mark upon his skin.

Byakuya flash stepped into view and froze, staring at him. Aizen captured one of the falling petal blades and smiled at him.

"It was good to see you again, Kuchiki Byakuya," he said softly, then he flash stepped away, leaving Byakuya staring after him.

He watched from a distance as Byakuya sheathed his weapon and turned back toward the shinigami base. He no longer cared at all that the base had not fallen. In fact, he was rather glad it was still there.

I know it was right to send you back to them. You are where you belong now. Perhaps when I have done what I need to do, we will be together again. In the meantime, we'll catch glimpses of each other…and I know not to expect to see a welcome look in your eyes. But for now, this will be enough. Take care of yourself, Aizen Byakuya. Aishiteru yo…

AN**Thanks so much for reading! I have started a new version of the sequel to this story. I posted the first chapter today. I plan to weave in Aizen's capture, as well as some things about the quincies. This may actually end up becoming a trilogy! :) Have a great day! Love to all, Spunky**